12 April 2021

Technological advances mean Britain can lead a new agricultural revolution

By Jerome Mayhew MP

Modern industrial farming emerged from the last crisis in which food shortages appeared a real prospect – the Second World War. However, that increase in production has come through reliance on chemical inputs and production techniques that have stripped our soils of their natural fertility and hammered on-farm biodiversity. The irony is that farmers are not even benefitting from this high input approach, with increases in input costs absorbing the value of higher yields. Anyone who loves the land knows that this is not the right way to farm, but many feel stuck in the high input, high costs, trap, unwilling to take the risk of a new approach to farming profitability.

The good news is that farming is on the cusp of an evolution of similar proportions: a resilient food system need no longer come at the expense of our environment. By providing farmers with a wide range of tools and incentives, from new payments for environmental improvements to putting a price on carbon, we can cut emissions and restore biodiversity whilst producing higher quantities of nutritious food and all at a sustainable profit.

Agricultural innovation after 1945 provided a growing population with an abundant food supply, but it also contributed in part to the decline of our environment. Fortunately, emerging trends in agronomy and agri-technology today combine productivity gains with decarbonisation and ecosystem regeneration. We can feed the nation and protect our natural capital at the same time.

This positive alignment between productivity and the environment has been emerging for a while – farmers in Britain have seen their yields increase while reducing chemical inputs by around half since 1990. But the science behind this inversion has recently congregated under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture: a growing movement of farmers, policymakers, scientists and consumers interested in rehabilitating our soils to boost fertility and productivity while helping to fight climate change.

The practice of regenerative agriculture is founded upon five principles: minimise soil disturbance, keep the soil surface covered with crops all year round, keep living roots in the soil, promote biodiversity on the farmed landscape, and bring grazing animals back to the land.

The aggregate effect of these practices is to increase the amount of organic carbon locked in the soil, which enhances soil moisture and nutrient storage and secures increased and resilient yields for farmers – and crucially extends the lifespan of our threatened soils. Regenerative soil management also boosts soil biodiversity, which promotes essential processes such as nutrient cycling and pest and disease control.

Regenerative farming has been made possible by new technologies such as direct seed drills, which enable farmers to plant their crops without disturbing the soil, and precision technologies which enable targeted fertiliser and pesticide application. Using GPS technology and sensors to undertake accurate geo-mapping of soil and crop health, farmers can tailor their inputs – reducing costs and environmental impacts.

Advances in geo-mapping hold out the prospect that farmers will be able to provide an auditable record of the amount of carbon sequestered in topsoil as a result of regenerative farming techniques. Increased organic matter in the soil brings its own reward of improved soil health and, consequently, soil fertility. On top of this, a carbon increase of just 0.1% in the soil equates to almost nine tonnes of sequestered carbon. Whilst the carbon content of our soils cannot be increased indefinitely, regenerative farming has the potential to provide an enormous carbon store, and secondary income stream from offsetting payments, until well beyond 2050.

What’s more, new frontiers in biotechnology and science promise to further compress resource intensity and emissions. For centuries, humanity has used controlled breeding to improve the productivity and resilience of crops and livestock, but this has been an iterative process over generations. Gene editing, which involves selecting for particular characteristics using genes from other members of the same species, could rapidly accelerate advances in nutrition and build resistance to storms, pests and disease.

The Government has recently consulted on lifting the ban on gene editing imposed by the European Union, and the practice is already permitted in Australia, Japan and the US. If well-regulated and utilised alongside incentives for nature-friendly farming practices, it has the potential to reduce emissions – by alleviating the pressures which drive pesticide and synthetic fertiliser use – and help farmers adapt to climate change.

Additionally, the deployment of indoor growing systems powered by renewable energy, including transformational food technologies like vertical farming and even cultured meat, could both reduce our reliance on imported vegetables and free up some farmland in the UK for nature’s recovery, with farmers paid for the environmental services, like carbon sequestration and flood prevention, that this would provide. For example, two new projects near my constituency in Norfolk plan to capture waste heat from local water treatment works and use ground source heat pumps to inject this into greenhouses growing vegetables. If this were to be scaled to all 43 potential sites identified by the firm, they could meet the UK’s entire demand for tomatoes and half of our consumption of peppers.

But we must get the policy and regulatory framework right to incentivise this transition to regenerative and low carbon farming. The Government’s pioneering Environmental Land Management scheme will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural policy and pay farmers for delivering environmental improvements such as better soil management. In addition, new capital grants are being established to help farmers purchase new equipment and technologies that can raise their productivity and reduce their environmental impact.

To my mind, the Government should introduce a carbon price to incentivise the shift to low-carbon farming, with a border adjustment tax so that British farmers are not put at a competitive disadvantage. I am delighted that the Government has put this firmly on the agenda for our G7 presidency this year. Once the true cost of pollution is accounted for, sustainable farming practices become the economical choice as well.

Whilst Covid-19 has tested our food system and highlighted its vulnerabilities, we now have the opportunity to build back better and support farmers to create a net zero and nature-rich agricultural sector which is resilient and productive. Through a combination of our new farm payments for environmental improvements and a policy of polluter pays, we can create a market framework in which both regenerative agriculture and innovative agri-technologies can thrive – marrying traditional farming practices with new ideas to feed the world and protect our planet.

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Jerome Mayhew is the MP for Broadland and a member of the Conservative Environment Network Parliamentary Caucus

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.